The Devil We Know

2018-08-19T23:13:50+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Stephanie Soechtig, Jeremy Seifert, Watched at:  Hot Docs 2018, Rating:  2.5/5.     The Devil We Know, a paint-by-numbers eco-doc, is set in West Virginia, where a group of residents in Parkersburg discovered that the chemical giant Dupont had been dumping the toxic chemicals used in Teflon and other products into the local water supply. Cancer and birth defects followed, as well as the usual tensions between profits and employment.  Dupont is the region’s largest employer, and it took most of the residents awhile to come around to the idea that the company putting food on their tables was also poisoning them. Finally, a few brave Davids brought a lawsuit against this Goliath (unfortunately, clichés are the guiding principle here), which is the only through line that delivers a narrative surprise in this movie. Screened at Sundance, The Devil We Know is not so much directed as box-ticked.  Co-directors Stephanie Soechtig and Jeremy Seifert are veterans of these kind of social issue exposés, and the film plods along with all the cinematic flair social issue docs demand: crosscutting vignettes of victimized citizens, bucolic montages of small city life, a music score toggling from sensitive to dark to inspirational, and the damning accumulation of corporate malfeasance. Yes, the stories told here are heartbreaking (especially that of a young man who overcomes his birth defects to marry, have a child, and remain consistently positive), the villains are reprehensible, and the filmmakers’ do-gooder hearts are squarely in the right place. But there is nothing remotely memorable about this film. [...]

Lean Team Pro Tip #1: Learn and practice, learn and practice

2018-08-25T20:25:50+00:00Categories: Lean Team Pro Tip|

I shot my first film, 30 Frames A Second, in 5 days. I then spent a few more days writing a script, and edited the doc in 7 days (I’d rented an edit suite and could only afford a week’s worth of time). The movie probably cost me about $9,000 to make, and most of that was my own in-kind contribution of time and gear to the project. I never applied for funding, hired an executive producer, attended a pitch session, or got anywhere near a post-production suite. I then sent the film out to a few film festivals without any real idea of what I was doing. It ended up winning the Best Documentary award at the Chicago Underground Film Festival and at several other fests in the months that followed. It played on Netflix for several years, and is still distributed educationally by Bullfrog Films. I decided that making independent documentaries was what I wanted to do. I was fortunate that I already had several years experience in producing, shooting, recording sound, and editing, skills I’d learned on the job as a TV news cameraman. My work was my practice field. That's the essential point of this first lean team tip: Learn and practice (and learn and practice) as many of the skills of filmmaking as you can. By becoming self-sufficient in planning, producing, writing, shooting, lighting, recording sound, and editing, you'll not only become a better and more well-rounded filmmaker–a lean team filmmaker–you'll also assume full control of your creative vision. You will [...]

The Prison in Twelve Landscapes

2018-08-18T23:02:03+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director: Brett Story, Watched on: iTunes, Rating:  5/5.   For a film composed of luminous images and becalmed scenes of waiting, watching, and talking, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes will likely leave you outraged. It will be a quiet outrage, in keeping with the mesmerizing resignation and stillness of the people and places featured in the film, but the anger will be there nevertheless, on a constant low boil. Director Brett Story’s accomplishment here is in taking an unwieldy documentary trope–the survey film, in which situational vignettes and character-driven profiles follow one another without resolve or dramatic mini-climaxes–and turning it into a powerful mosaic of injustice and sorrow. She traveled around the country investigating the ways in which America’s prison industrial complex has become insinuated into the lives, communities, and businesses that exist nowhere near an actual prison. We see only one, Attica, whose sun-sparkled, castle-like exterior and manicured greenery makes it look like an inviting destination resort. We don’t need to go inside to see actual inmates. The victims of America’s mass incarceration obsession as well as those institutions feeding off their neverending “debt to society” walk among us. There is the black man who gigs away in Washington Square park teaching kids how to play chess. He learned the game in the slammer. There is the incarcerated black female wildfire fighter who takes pride in her dangerous work, but acknowledges she will probably never get hired for a similar job when she gets out. There is the black woman arrested and forced to choose between a [...]

Faces Places

2018-09-09T17:04:12+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Directors:  Agnès Varda, JR, Watched on:  Netflix, Rating:  2/5.     I loved Agnès Varda’s documentaries, The Beaches of Agnès and The Gleaners and I,for their unabashed reflexivity and casual wonder. She is an artist of the people, intertwining her off-hand interviews with melancholic asides on memory and the ever-shifting nature of relationships. Her best film, Vagabond, is a fictional narrative with documentary-like soundbites, set-up to look like the work of a reporter investigating the unsolved death of the titular young woman whose body is found in a ditch. The movie is uncompromising, even brutal, without the playfulness and wink she sometimes applies to her docs. That playfulness, leavened by a profound seriousness in her own non-fiction work, is perhaps the reason why the French artist, who goes by the initials JR, wanted to make a film with her. It’s the whimsy that rules here, threatening and mostly succeeding in turning what may have looked like a good idea in pre-production into an often exasperating and lightweight throwaway. JR, with his hipster porkpie and lanky energy, drives around the countryside in a van outfitted as a mobile photo booth. He takes pictures of townspeople and curious tourists on the spot and then his van spits out giant, large-format black-and-whites on cheap paper, which JR’s crew then pastes on buildings, ruins, and–in one instance–shipping containers. He is one of those artists that other artists might loathe for believing himself to be a man of the people when really, he is just a man of the zeitgeist. His idea [...]


2018-08-08T00:38:50+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director: Sergei Loznitsa, Watched on: Filmatique, Rating: 4.5.   On first glance, the irony of this film’s premise is almost too simple: hordes of selfie-sticked tourists descend on Germany’s concentration camps to check “Holocaust memorials” off their bucket list. But after the requisite huff of judgement directed towards the T-shirted visitors and a grunting suspicion that the filmmaker is settling in for one long smirk, things get interesting pretty quickly. Quickly might be the wrong adverb. Director Sergei Loznitsa’s film is composed of long, static takes, many running five minutes or more, in which we observe from a respectful distance the shuffling of tourists through barracks and killing grounds, peering into cells and crematoriums, listening to audio tours and snapping pics with their smartphones. We are several minutes into the film before we see the Arbeit macht frei signage over the entry, mostly obscured by the crowds. Then scenes inside of families, couples, groups doing what tourists do: paying half-attention, yawning, fingering phones, snacking, guzzling water while wearing shorts and T-shirts on a hot summer day. Most look quickly through windows or at plaques and then move on. “Who are these disrespectful louts,” we want to say, “treating humanity’s greatest tragedy with all the reverence of an aqua park?” Then we realize the louts are us. The film’s title is taken from a 2001 book by W.G. Sebald, in which the main character, Jacques Austerlitz, a member of the kindertransport which saved the lives of 10,000 children before the outbreak of World War II, conducts a lengthy, labyrinthine search [...]

Frederick Wiseman

2018-08-08T22:21:52+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Films watched on: Kanopy, Ratings:  Titicut Follies  3/5, Boxing Gym 3/5, Ex-Libris 2.5/5, National Gallery  1.5/5,  At Berkeley 1/5.   Frederick Wiseman’s approach to his chosen subject matter, the internal workings of institutions, is as unwavering as his camera. His films are long (the last four have run more than 3 hours each; At Berkeley, which had me asking for a hall pass after 15 minutes, lasted 4 hours). He shoots with available light and the crew consists of his cameraman and himself,  holding the boom mic and recording sound. His films avoid talking head interviews, on-screen graphics, music, or anything more rudimentary than a tripod for getting his unobtrusive but up-close footage. He spends months editing, which is always surprising to me, since his entire approach to cutting is taught in beginning film classes: exterior establishing shot, wide shot of a group of people, medium shot on the focal point of the group, a series of cutaways of people listening or interjecting, and then another round of this approach until the next establishing shot of a new location. Rinse, repeat. The director has many fans among film critics, but until recently, it was hard for audiences to find and watch his movies. Now, for a limited time, they are available on the streaming site Kanopy, which is free if your public library subscribes to their platform. Wiseman always finds money for his extensive forays. He could offer to make a film about paint drying and he would probably get several hundred thousand dollars to do it. In [...]


2018-08-20T23:36:47+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Wim Wenders, Watched in:  On-Demand and in Theater, Rating:  5/5.     Pina is director Wim Wenders’ magnificently filmed memorial to the artistry and legacy of Pina Bausch, a German dance master whose work intoxicated the filmmaker more than twenty years ago but left him unsure how to replicate her three dimensional work within the two dimensional frames of film. Then 3-D came along and in 2009, days before he was set to begin filming, Pina Bausch died soon after receiving a cancer diagnosis. The movie was put on hold until Pina’s dancers convinced Wenders it was necessary to make the film, both as a remembrance of Pina and as an opportunity for her troupe to choreograph and stage their personal testimonials to her genius. The result is a dance documentary that breaks away from both the dance stage and the documentary form to create a bracing new type of documentary cinema, leaving out the talking heads, the requisite biographical data and the explanatory on-screen text in favor of a simple, purely visceral celebration of artistic bravery. Pina’s visions for the dances she created seemed to emerge from the deep wells of desire and longing trapped inside every human being. She staged gripping performances of Sisyphean repetitions, physical drudgeries remade into expressions of hoped-for escape. She worked with elemental textures and energies: boulders and dirt, water and wind. Her dancers do not leap through the air like gazelles, they struggle against internal forces. The dances are muscular revolts against conventions. They are often as remarkable for what [...]


2019-07-12T19:12:03+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director: Kirsten Johnson, Watched on: Film Struck, Rating:  2/5.     I’ve watched Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson twice now, although the second time I watched it over three days, a few sections at a time. I kept stopping to ask myself, “Now, what am I not getting here?” Johnson’s film is a conundrum. It’s not a conundrum because it’s exceedingly obtuse or experimental, it’s because it doesn’t seem to say what the director or the film’s laudatory reviews think it says. Cameraperson, constructed from leftover footage Johnson shot while working on other documentaries, played in several prestige festivals (full disclosure: Johnson borrowed my camera for several seconds of video she shot in her father’s home in Seattle, where I live). The director received the full artist’s treatment with a Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection. And except for a negative review from the New Yorker’s Richard Brody and some withering online user reviews on iTunes and Amazon, the movie has been universally praised. I’ll admit to a bit of jealously here. As a longtime cameraman myself, I’ve been working on a similar type of film, re-purposing previously shot footage from around the world into an essay that I haven’t yet quite figured out how to make work. But all of that is beside the point. In my view, Johnson’s film doesn’t work either, at least not in the way she intends, either as a statement about the ethical responsibilities incumbent upon a filmmaker poking their camera into other lives, or as a rumination on the shifting transactions between the [...]

The Unknown Known

2018-08-10T00:21:13+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Errol Morris, Watched at:   True/False Film Festival Rating:  1.5/5.     The poster for the new Errol Morris documentary, The Unknown Known, displays a picture of a grinning Donald Rumsfeld along with the caption, “Why is this man smiling?” Well, you’d smile too if you came to this project expecting Morris to hold your feet to the fire and instead you end up getting a foot massage. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was one of the main architects of George W. Bush’s war on terror, which began first in Afghanistan and then continued in Iraq. It was a disastrous campaign of astounding incompetence and murderous ruin, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and tens of thousands of American soldiers, and the physical and psychological maiming of tens of thousands more. It’s important to remember all of this when watching The Unknown Known, because at no point in this film does Morris hold the former Secretary accountable for his actions. At no point does he present the irrefutable evidence of Rumsfeld’s dereliction. At no point does he confront the man with pictures of the dead and damaged. I kept waiting for Morris to produce the infamous memo, the one alerting the Bush administration to Osama bin Laden’s determination to attack within the United States, and to ask Rumsfeld, charged with the nation’s security, why he ignored it. But the memo plays no part in the film. What, one wonders, was Morris’s intent in making this picture? After 34 hours of interview footage [...]

The Wolfpack

2018-08-10T00:11:18+00:00Categories: Docs in Review|

Director:  Crystal Moselle, Watched in:  Theater Rating:  2.5/5.   The Wolfpack, a Sundance-award winning documentary, offers viewers the kind of beguiling story usually reserved for novels or memoirs. The six New York brothers featured in the film, who grow into their teen years and beyond during the course of the movie, have hardly ever ventured outside the walls of their cramped Lower East Side apartment. Virtually imprisoned by a domineering father and their beloved but passive mother, they engage with the world by reenacting scenes from their favorite movies. The fact that they’ve matured into relatively likeable, capable, intelligent young men is what keeps this film watchable throughout its 80 minutes. The director Crystal Moselle encountered the kids when they were finally being allowed out of the house. She convinced them to let her document their lifestyle and they gave her access to their home movies. She followed them on their ever more frequent excursions outside, and she even interviewed their evasive father, who kept the boys (and their developmentally disabled sister) indoors because he did not want them to be “contaminated” by the outside world. He cultivated a sense of tribal loyalty among the family, giving the kids ancient Hindu first names, keeping their hair long, and going out for food runs while his wife home-schooled them. There is lots of fascinating material in the movie, but much of it is dropped on viewers in a misshapen heap. Moselle leaves many questions unanswered. How did the parents end up in New York? Why didn’t mom [...]

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